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Posts about scientific research and development as well as science and engineering breakthroughs.
Recommended posts: R&D Spending in USA Universities - Diplomacy and Science Research - Research Career in Industry or Academia - New Understanding of Human DNA - Basic Science Research Funding - The Worlds Best Research Universities - Mystery of High-Temperature Superconductivity - Why Most Published Research Findings Are False

Goats Excel at Learning and Remembering a Complex Tasks

I like research showing animals using intelligence that seems advanced, for example: Crow Using a Sequence of Three ToolsInsightful Problem Solving in an Asian ElephantBird-brains smarter than your average apeTropical Lizards Can Solve Novel Problems and Remember the SolutionsPigeon Solves Box and Banana Problem.

I also like open access science, and this has both: Goats excel at learning and remembering a highly novel cognitive task

The majority of trained goats (9/12) successfully learned the task quickly; on average, within 12 trials. After intervals of up to 10 months, they solved the task within two minutes, indicating excellent long-term memory. The goats did not learn the task faster after observing a demonstrator than if they did not have that opportunity. This indicates that they learned through individual rather than social learning.”

The individual learning abilities and long-term memory of goats highlighted in our study suggest that domestication has not affected goat physical cognition. However, these cognitive abilities contrast with the apparent lack of social learning, suggesting that relatively intelligent species do not always preferentially learn socially. We propose that goat cognition, and maybe more generally ungulate cognition, is mainly driven by the need to forage efficiently in harsh environments and feed on plants that are difficult to access and to process, more than by the computational demands of sociality. Our results could also explain why goats are so successful at colonizing new environments.

The experiment was done with domesticated goats. I also learned this from the article, which I didn’t know before:

Domestication is known to strongly affect brain size. Consistent reductions in brain size relative to body size, as well as in brain size parts, have occurred in many domestic species.

Related: Orangutan Attempts to Hunt Fish with SpearFriday Fun: Bird Using Bait to FishPhoto of Fish Using a Rock to Open a Clam

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More Muscle Mass Appears Linked to Longer Life

New UCLA research suggests that the more muscle mass older Americans have, the less likely they are to die prematurely. The findings add to the growing evidence that overall body composition — and not the widely used body mass index, or BMI — is a better predictor of all-cause mortality. The study was published in the in a closed science journal (it is too bad UCLA promotes such anti-science practices). The research was funded by the NIH (who also shouldn’t allow such anti-science practices).

Dr. Preethi Srikanthan: “many studies on the mortality impact of obesity focus on BMI. Our study indicates that clinicians need to be focusing on ways to improve body composition, rather than on BMI alone, when counseling older adults on preventative health behaviors.”

The researchers analyzed data collected by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) III, conducted between 1988 and 1994. They focused on a group of 3,659 individuals that included men who were 55 or older and women who were 65 or older at the time of the survey. The authors then determined how many of those individuals had died from natural causes based on a follow-up survey done in 2004.

The body composition of the study subjects was measured using bioelectrical impedance, which involves running an electrical current through the body. Muscle allows the current to pass more easily than fat does, due to muscle’s water content. In this way, the researchers could determine a muscle mass index — the amount of muscle relative to height — similar to a body mass index. They looked at how this muscle mass index was related to the risk of death.

They found that all-cause mortality was significantly lower in the fourth quartile of muscle mass index compared with the first quartile.

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Explaining the Higgs Boson Particle Again

comic illustration explaining the Higgs-boson particle

Excerpt from Piled Higher and Deeper by Jorge Cham – go see the entire illustration.

Related: 5% of the Universe is Normal Matter, What About the Other 95%?At the Heart of All MatterThe god of small thingsCERN Pressure Test FailureNinja ProfessorsFriday Fun, CERN Version

Battery Breakthrough Using Organic Storage

Battery offers renewable energy breakthrough

a metal-free flow battery that relies on the electrochemistry of naturally abundant, inexpensive, small organic (carbon-based) molecules called quinones, which are similar to molecules that store energy in plants and animals.

The mismatch between the availability of intermittent wind or sunshine and the variable demand is the biggest obstacle to using renewable sources for a large fraction of our electricity. A cost-effective means of storing large amounts of electrical energy could solve this problem.

Flow batteries store energy in chemical fluids contained in external tanks, as with fuel cells, instead of within the battery container itself. The two main components — the electrochemical conversion hardware through which the fluids are flowed (which sets the peak power capacity) and the chemical storage tanks (which set the energy capacity) — may be independently sized. Thus the amount of energy that can be stored is limited only by the size of the tanks. The design permits larger amounts of energy to be stored at lower cost than with traditional batteries.

This looks like a very interesting field of research. Storing power remains one of the challenges for renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. This is especially true if the use is disconnected from the grid, but is even true for grid-connected uses. Especially as increasing the amount of wind and solar energy make it increasingly likely that surplus energy is created at certain times.

The research seems to allow for sensible size home storage setups. At the commercial level the volume needed is very large. Another concern to be addressed is how many cycles the “battery” is good for before it degrades; current experimentation show no degradation after 100 cycles but consumer/commercial usage will need thousands of cycles.

Related: Battery Breakthrough (solid sodium metal mated to a sulphur compound by an extraordinary, paper-thin ceramic membrane)Energy Storage Using Carbon Nanotubes (2006)Chart of Wind Power Generation Capacity Globally 2005-2012Recharge Batteries in Seconds

Country H-index Ranking for Science Publications

The SCImago Journal and Country Rank provides journal and country scientific indicators developed from the information contained in the Scopus database (this site also lets you look at these ranking by very specific categories (I think 313 categories), for example biotechnology #1 USA, #2 Germany, #3 UK, #4 Japan, #9 China or Theoretical Computer Science #1 USA, #2 UK, #3 Canada, #6 China). I posted about this previously (in 2008 and 2011) and take a look at the updated picture in this post.

I like looking at data and country comparisons but in doing so it is wise to remember this is the results of a calculation that is interesting but hardly definative. We don’t have the ability to have exact numbers on haw the true scientific knowledge output by countries are. I think you can draw the conclusion that the USA is very influential, and along with other data make the case even that the USA is the leading scientific publication center.

The table shows the top 6 countries by h-index and then some others I chose to list.

Country h-index 2007
h-index
% of World
Population
% of World GDP total cites
USA 1,389 793     4.4%   22.4% 129,540,193
United Kingdom 851 465  0.9  3.4 31,393,290
Germany 740 408  1.2  4.7  25,848,738
France 681 376  0.9  3.6  5,795,531
Canada 658 370  0.5  2.5 15,696,168
Japan 635 372  1.8  8.2 20,343,377
Additional countries of interest
16) China 385 161  19.2  11.3  11,253,119
19) South Korea 343 161    .7  1.8  4,640,390
22) Brazil 305 148  2.8  3.1 3,362,480
24) India 301 146  17.6  2.5 4,528,302

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DNA Contains Gene Control Instructions

Scientists discover double meaning in genetic code

Scientists have discovered a second code hiding within DNA. This second code contains information that changes how scientists read the instructions contained in DNA and interpret mutations to make sense of health and disease.

“For over 40 years we have assumed that DNA changes affecting the genetic code solely impact how proteins are made,” said Stamatoyannopoulos. “Now we know that this basic assumption about reading the human genome missed half of the picture. These new findings highlight that DNA is an incredibly powerful information storage device, which nature has fully exploited in unexpected ways.”

The genetic code uses a 64-letter alphabet called codons. The UW team discovered that some codons, which they called duons, can have two meanings, one related to protein sequence, and one related to gene control. These two meanings seem to have evolved in concert with each other. The gene control instructions appear to help stabilize certain beneficial features of proteins and how they are made.

The discovery of duons has major implications for how scientists and physicians interpret a patient’s genome and will open new doors to the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

“The fact that the genetic code can simultaneously write two kinds of information means that many DNA changes that appear to alter protein sequences may actually cause disease by disrupting gene control programs or even both mechanisms simultaneously,” said Stamatoyannopoulos.

The wonder of DNA continues to amaze.

Related: Epigenetic Effects on DNA from Living Conditions in Childhood Persist Well Into Middle AgeDNA Passed to Descendants Changed by Your LifeDNA based Algorithmic Self-Assembly

Better Health Through: Exercise, Not Smoking, Low Weight, Healthy Diet and Low Alcohol Intake

These 5 activities/state reduce the risk of chronic diseases: regular exercise, not smoking, healthy bodyweight, healthy diet and low alcohol intake. How these were defined

  • not smoking
  • body mass index (BMI): 18 to under 25
  • diet: target was to be 5 portions of fruit and/or vegetables a day, but since almost no one meet that target they reduced the acceptable rate to 3 as accepted as ‘healthy.” Also a diet with less than 30% of calories from fat was required.
  • physical activity: walking two or more miles to work each day, or cycling ten or more miles to work each day, or ‘vigorous’ exercise described as a regular habit
  • alcohol: three or fewer units per day, with abstinence not treated as a healthy behaviour.

Healthy Lifestyles Reduce the Incidence of Chronic Diseases and Dementia: Evidence from the Caerphilly Cohort Study (PLoS open science publication).

The numbers of men judged to be following a healthy lifestyle were as follows: 179 (8%) followed none of the five behaviours, 702 (31%) followed one behaviour, 814 (36%) followed two, 429 (19%) followed three, 111 (5%) followed four or five behaviours and only two (0.1%) followed all five behaviors.

Within a representative sample of middle-aged men, the following of increasing numbers of healthy behaviours was associated with increasing reductions in several important chronic diseases and mortality: an estimated 50% reduction in diabetes, 50% in vascular disease and 60% for all-cause mortality. These results therefore confirm previous studies and provide further data on the association of lifestyle with cognitive impairment and dementia, with a reduction of about 60% in cognitive impairment and about the same in dementia. These reductions, and especially those in cognitive function, are of enormous importance in an ageing population.

Healthy habits reduce dementia risk (Cardiff University press release):

The people who consistently followed four or five of these behaviors exp
experienced a 60 per cent decline in dementia and cognitive decline – with exercise being the strongest mitigating factor – as well as 70 per cent fewer instances of diabetes, heart disease and stroke, compared with people who followed none.

Principle Investigator Professor Peter Elwood from Cardiff University’s School of Medicine. “What the research shows is that following a healthy lifestyle confers surprisingly large benefits to health – healthy behaviours have a far more beneficial effect than any medical treatment or preventative procedure.

Christopher Allen, Senior Cardiac Nurse at the British Heart Foundation, which part-funded the study, said:

“The results of this study overwhelmingly support the notion that adopting a healthy lifestyle reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease and dementia.

Related: Examining the Scientific Basis Around Exercise and Diet ClaimsHealthy Diet, Healthy Living, Healthy WeightStudy Finds Obesity as Teen as Deadly as SmokingPhysical Activity for Adults: Inactivity Leads to 5.3 Million Early Deaths a YearToday, Most Deaths Caused by Lifetime of Action or Inaction

Nobel Prize Winner Criticizes Role of Popular Science Journals in the Scientific Process

Randy Schekman, 2013 Nobel Prize winner in physiology or medicine has written another critique of the mainstream, closed-science journals. How journals like Nature, Cell and Science are damaging science

Mine is a professional world that achieves great things for humanity. But it is disfigured by inappropriate incentives. The prevailing structures of personal reputation and career advancement mean the biggest rewards often follow the flashiest work, not the best. Those of us who follow these incentives are being entirely rational – I have followed them myself – but we do not always best serve our profession’s interests, let alone those of humanity and society.

We all know what distorting incentives have done to finance and banking. The incentives my colleagues face are not huge bonuses, but the professional rewards that accompany publication in prestigious journals – chiefly Nature, Cell and Science.

There is a better way, through the new breed of open-access journals that are free for anybody to read, and have no expensive subscriptions to promote. Born on the web, they can accept all papers that meet quality standards, with no artificial caps. Many are edited by working scientists, who can assess the worth of papers without regard for citations. As I know from my editorship of eLife, an open access journal funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Max Planck Society, they are publishing world-class science every week.

Just as Wall Street needs to break the hold of the bonus culture, which drives risk-taking that is rational for individuals but damaging to the financial system, so science must break the tyranny of the luxury journals. The result will be better research that better serves science and society.

Very well said. The closed access journal culture is damaging science in numerous ways. We need to stop supporting those organizations and instead support organizations focused more on promoting great scientific work for the good of society.

Related: Fields Medalist Tim Gowers Takes Action To Stop Cooperating with Anti-Open Science CartelScience Journal Publishers Stay StupidHarvard Steps Up Defense Against Abusive Journal PublishersThe Future of Scholarly Publication (2005)The Trouble with Incentives: They WorkWhen Performance-related Pay BackfiresRewarding Risky Behavior

Search for Antibiotic Solutions Continues: Killing Sleeper Bacteria Cells

Killing Sleeper Cells and Superbugs with Assassin Janitors

Discovered in 2005 by scientists from Bayer Healthcare in Germany, ADEP4 killed a variety of different bacteria and cured lethal infections in mice and rats.

Here’s how it works. Proteins need to fold into very precise shapes to do their jobs, and misfolded proteins are wastes of space. Bacteria dispose of these useless molecules with ClpP—a janitorial protein that digests other proteins. It works with a partner, which recognises misfolded proteins, unfolds them, and threads them through a hole in the middle of ClpP so they can be broken down. But ADEP4 opens ClpP up so it no longer needs its partner. The janitor now becomes an assassin, running amok and chopping up any protein it comes across, misfolded or not.

The Bayer scientists showed that ADEP4 can force fast-growing cells to self-destruct, but Lewis suspected that it would do the same to persisters. Afterall, ClpP’s partner requires energy to do its job, but ClpP itself doesn’t. Once ADEP4 opens it up, it should go about its fatal business even in a dormant cell.

Lewis’ team found that ADEP4 did effectively kills persister populations of Staphylococcus aureus, but the bacteria bounce back. ClpP isn’t essential, so the bacteria just inactivated it to evolve their way around ADEP4. This, says Lewis, is why Bayer stopped working on the drug.

His solution was to pair ADEP4 with another antibiotic called rifampycin. ADEP4 would kill off the majority of the persisters, and if any of the rest started growing again, rifampycin would finish them off. He predicted that the double-whammy would leave very few survivors, maybe just a thousand cells or so.

“That’s not what we saw,” he says. “What we saw was complete sterilisation.”

This is a very nice effort. As our efforts fail to find “magic bullet” antibiotics fail and antibiotic resistance increases combo drug solutions offer some hope. While this is good news, the overall state of our ability to treat bacterial infections continues to decline as our misuse of antibiotics has greatly increased the speed at which antibiotic resistance has developed in bacteria.

This solution only works on gram positive antibiotics. ADEP4 is too big to pass through the extra outer layers of the gram-negative bacteria like ecoli and salmonella.

Related: Entirely New Antibiotic Developed, Platensimycin (2006) (2013 update: Platensimycin is a very effective antibiotic in vivo when continuously administered to cells, however this efficacy is reduced when administered by more conventional means. Efforts continue to find a way to create delivery options that are successful in treating people.) – New Family of Antibacterial Agents Discovered (2009)Potential Antibiotic Alternative to Treat Infection (2012)

Outdoor Air Pollution Resulted in 223,000 Cancer Deaths in 2010

The specialized cancer agency of the World Health Organization, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), announced today that it has classified outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic to humans.

After thoroughly reviewing the latest available scientific literature, the world’s leading experts convened by the IARC Monographs Programme concluded that there is sufficient evidence that exposure to outdoor air pollution causes lung cancer. They also noted a positive association with an increased risk of bladder cancer.

Particulate matter, a major component of outdoor air pollution, was evaluated separately and was also classified as carcinogenic to humans.

The IARC evaluation showed an increasing risk of lung cancer with increasing levels of exposure to particulate matter and air pollution. Although the composition of air pollution and levels of exposure can vary dramatically between locations, the conclusions of the Working Group apply to all regions of the world.

Air pollution is already known to increase risks for a wide range of diseases, such as respiratory and heart diseases. Studies indicate that in recent years exposure levels have increased significantly in some parts of the world, particularly in rapidly industrializing countries with large populations. The most recent data indicate that in 2010, 223,000 deaths from lung cancer worldwide resulted from air pollution.

“The air we breathe has become polluted with a mixture of cancer-causing substances,” says Dr Kurt Straif.

The stories of amazingly high (and persistent) air pollution levels in China have been continuing for years. But, while China, likely represents several of the worst existing air pollution conditions hundreds of thousands have died outside China due to air pollution just in the last 5 years.

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Deadly Trio of Acidification, Warming and Deoxygenation Threaten Our Oceans

An international panel of marine scientists is demanding urgent remedies to halt ocean degradation based on findings that the rate, speed and impacts of change in the global ocean are greater, faster and more imminent
than previously thought.

Professor Dan Laffoley, International Union for Conservation of Nature, said: “What these latest reports make absolutely clear is that deferring action will increase costs in the future and lead to even greater, perhaps irreversible, losses. The UN climate report confirmed that the ocean is bearing the brunt of human-induced changes to our planet. These findings give us more cause for alarm – but also a roadmap for action. We must use it.“

Results from the latest International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO)/IUCN review of science on anthropogenic stressors on the ocean go beyond the conclusion reached last week by the UN climate change panel the IPCC that the ocean is absorbing much of the warming and unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide and warn that the cumulative impact of this with other ocean stressors is far graver than previous estimates.

Decreasing oxygen levels in the ocean caused by climate change and nitrogen runoff, combined with other chemical pollution and rampant overfishing are undermining the ability of the ocean to withstand these so-called ‘carbon perturbations’, meaning its role as Earth’s ‘buffer’ is seriously compromised.

Professor Alex Rogers of Somerville College, Oxford, and Scientific Director of IPSO said: “The health of the ocean is spiraling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought. We are seeing greater change, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated. The situation should be of the gravest concern to everyone since everyone will be affected by changes in the ability of the ocean to support life on Earth.”

Among the latest assessments of factors affecting ocean health, the panel identified the following areas as of greatest cause for concern:
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